Archive for September, 2009


Posted by on Thursday, 17 September, 2009

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SpaceScience: A Ticket To Mars

According to a “blue ribbon panel” reporting to the Office of Science And Technology Policy, we can’t afford a “manned” lunar program. The United States is emerging from a recession with a lot of bills and it has to reduce costs wherever it can.

If we can’t afford the moon, how can we afford Mars?

I don’t want to sound like a broken blog, but this isn’t the first time I’ve discussed the expensive conceit of sending humans to Mars. Quoting myself, “Throughout NASA’s history, there’s been considerable tension between those who believe in the symbolic importance of getting our human butts out there and those who feel that the astronomical (good word here) costs and barely manageable risks aren’t justified when robots are proving themselves so capable.”

Lawrence Klauss suggests that we can solve all this by making the trip to Mars one-way. In a 9/11 interview on NPR’s “Science Friday”, Klauss discussed the cost of sending humans to Mars and, rightly, in my opinion, brought up the advantages of robots. He said that robots will continue to improve and, by the time we are ready for the trip, their abilities may rival those of human astronauts.

So that’s what we should do, right? Send robots?

Well no. Instead of reaching the obvious conclusion, Klaus, feels the pull of putting boots on red sand and thinks there’s GOTTA be a way. Why not, he says, do a one-way mission to establish the first permanent space colony? This, he says, makes sense since it would cost less to deliver the human payload and could lighten the required radiation shielding. A return trip might be fatal anyway because of Gamma ray exposure. So make it one-way.

ScienceAin’tSoBad respectfully doesn’t get it.

What about the unbelievable ethical implications of exposing a crew to HALF of a fatal dose of radiation? Will we prohibit transmissions beyond the first joy-filled 3 months so that we don’t have to watch them sicken and die? Would this colony, once established, have hopes of generationalism – bearing children and rearing the first native Martians? If so, the radiational offspring of the colonists may give us a chance to communicate with REAL Martians. Two heads, eye stalks, and obsidian skin.

Chopping out the return trip, although it does simplify the shielding design and reduce the bulk of the rocket, is unlikely to reduce the costs enough to make the numbers work but, even if it did, that doesn’t justify putting human beings at such risk.

Besides. The “One Way To Mars” idea only blurs the absurdity of a human program. We should focus on building great robots. By the day of the expected human landing, maybe robots will be capable of experiencing the joy of watching the sun set over the earth. They could be our true, if improbable, descendants.

And we wouldn’t have to watch them crawl around on the rim of a crater, dying from radiation poisoning.

ScienceAin’tSoBadRating = 3

Neurobiology: Focusing The Brain

I hope you have a well-behaved mind.

Many of us don’t.

My own mind skitters out from under me whenever it chooses.

What’s different about those with great concentration and those who are easily distracted? Some new research suggests it may be related to how large your “working memory” is. Working memory is believed to be a type of short-term memory which is used to temporarily store things while you’re thinking. It determines the number of thoughts you can keep “alive” at the same time.

For example, if you’re late for dinner, you can think “Man! She’s gonna kill me!” AND think “but I better not forget to stop for gas on the way”.

According to a study from the University of Oregon, people with large working memories are less easily distracted.

It makes sense, doesn’t it?

ScienceAin’tSoBadRating = 7

Unless the problem is due to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.

While it varies in its severity, ADHD can make it difficult to concentrate and, in general, manage your time.

A study at the Brookhaven National Laboratory involved 97 people. It found that the 53 subjects with ADHD (the rest were controls) had abnormally low dopamine in the parts of the brain that control reward and motivation. And it found that such people appear to need extra stimulation which they don’t always seek out in the healthiest ways – sometimes overeating or abusing drugs or alcohol. In other words, immediate gratification seemed to win out over other things.

There are ways to increase dopamine levels in the brain. Some involve drugs (and side effects) and some do not. But this would seem to be a great thing to explore (carefully).

Good paper. More work needs to be done to solve this problem.

ScienceAin’tSoBadRating = 9